Philadelphia Metropolis


E Pluribus Unum? Nah.

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The dispute known in the media as The Mosque at Ground Zero bubbled up while I was on vacation and, coincidentally, reading a book about the religious wars of an earlier era in American history.

It was an odd experience: to be steeped in the messy and divisive politics of the 1840s one minute, then to click into the New York Times to catch up on the messy and divisive politics of today, over many of the same issues.

Then and now, the conflict was over this essential question: Who is an American?

Naturally, the particulars are different. On one level, the current controversy is about the location of an Islamic community center, but the debate has tended to revolve around Muslims in America and whether their devotion to Islam somehow makes them less authentic (or more suspect) citizens.

In the 1840's there weren't enough Muslims to get upset about. The threat - a very real threat to Americanism, as then defined - were Roman Catholics, who began to appear on the nation's doorstep in the 1840s in frightening numbers.  Most of them were from Ireland, many of them paupers and riff-raff fleeing famine, who disgorged from steerage and settled into cities, creating instant slums.

Cities such as BostonNew YorkBaltimore and Philadelphia grew exponentially during the mid-19th Century, due mostly to this influx of foreign migrants. Philadelphia, for instance, went from 258,000 people in 1840 to 565,000 in 1860.

To most Philadelphians, these immigrants were a double-dose of bad.  For starters, the Irish were considered a lower form of human.  The cartoonists of the era usually portrayed them as ape-like. (One political cartoon from the 1850s, portraying an Irish parade, was captioned the March of the Orangutans.)

Irish as Apes.jpg

The Irish as Apes in an 1867 cartoon about St. Patrick's Day riots


Being Catholic, though, was worse. Even in Quaker Philadelphia, anti-Catholicism was virulent. To Protestants here and elsewhere, Catholicism was a vile, corrupt religion that was hostile to democracy.

They had a point about the democracy part. Pope Pius IX, who ran the show from 1846 to 1878, was hostile to democratic movements, in Europe and abroad. (As a rule of thumb, pontiffs tend to favor systems of rigid hierarchical rule.)

It didn't take much of a leap for fearful Americans to come to the conclusion that if the Irish were allowed to prosper and grow in this country, they would eventually take over the political apparatus. And, if they took over the political apparatus, they would install a despotic theocratic state, ruled by the Pope, that would persecute Protestants.

One Philadelphia Nativist writer laid out exactly this scenario in an 1855 pamphlet published by the Know Nothing (officially, the American) Party:

"Our opposition to political Romanism is open and avowed and is based, as we conceive, on the purest principles of national conservatism.  We do preach a crusade against the bigots who have invaded our soil...and [who] already boast that by increasing the numbers of Irish immigrants, they will soon overturn the principle of toleration in this country and by the horrors of religious persecution, reduce us to subjection to Catholic Rome."


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A Thomas Nast cartoon, circa 1870s, of Catholic bishops attacking the USA.


Know Nothingism was the political manifestation of this fear.  Its heyday was in the 1850s, when it elected candidates to Congress, state legislatures and city councils in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.  Its platform included a plank to change naturalization law to extend the time it took to become a U.S. citizen from five years to 25 years and to exclude "all paupers (read: most Irish immigrants) and persons convicted of crime from landing upon our shores."

To recapitulate: We are not bigots; the Catholics are bigots. The only way to promote the principle of toleration is to be intolerant of Irish Catholics. Catholicism, per se, is anathema to democracy.

Political action wasn't the only manifestation of Nativist fears in Philadelphia.  They also took direct action, which consisted of rioting, beating the hell out of the Irish and setting fire to Catholic churches.

In the so-called Bible Riots of 1844, more than 30 people were killed and several hundred wounded in a series of clashes between native Philadelphians and Irish immigrants in Kensington and Southwark, two district's, then outside city limits, where the Irish were concentrated.  St. Michael's Church in Kensington was burned to the ground, as was St. Augustine's Church in Northern Liberties.  Only the intervention of the militia stopped a mob from blasting Queen Village's St. Philip Neri Church to smithereens with a stolen cannon - and with a collection of Irish inside the church.



The burning of St. Augustine's Church during the 1844 riots.


An official inquiry later blamed the Irish - or, as the Nativist press put it "the bloody hand of the Pope" for the riots. Not a surprise.

The immediate cause of the riots was a request made of public school officials by Francis Patrick Kenrick, the  bishop of Philadelphia, to allow Catholic students to use the (Catholic) Douy-Rheims translation of the Bible in class, instead of the (Protestant) King James version. (Yes, they read the Bible in public schools in those days.)

This was twisted by the Nativists into Kenrick demanding that the Douy-Rhiems replace the King James version for all students or seeking to ban the Bible altogether from the schools.  More "Romish corruptions," as angry Protestants put it.

Mayhem ensued.

It is foolish to think you can stem a tide by burning a church, but these were difficult times; the city was undergoing a profound economic and ethnic transformation. The Industrial Revolution was underway and many of the Irish who arrived took jobs in the factories that were springing up along the Delaware River, displacing the (native, Protestant) artisans who manufactured textiles, shoes and other goods from their home workshops. These hardworking Americans felt threatened, fearful and angry. In a way, it was natural for them to lash out at the aliens who were demanding entrance into their world.

Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.


 - Tom Ferrick



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